The Lakers should throw their play-in vs. the Pelicans to avoid the Nuggets

“You either win a championship or you’re s—. It’s very black and white to me.”

Kobe Bryant said those words after the Lakers’ 62nd loss of the 2015-16 campaign, their third year in a row setting a franchise record for defeats in a season, and his last campaign in the NBA. His point was that any year a team doesn’t win a title is a waste.

“Whether you set a franchise record for losses or you get to the playoffs and lose in the Western Conference finals, those are the same damn things to me,” Bryant continued then. “A lot of people probably don’t understand that, don’t get that, and that’s fine, but for me, they’re all the same. So you either win a championship or you’re in the same boat we’re in.”

That might seem like hyperbole, but the Lakers have always said that’s how they operate. They don’t hang banners for division titles, or celebrate conference Finals appearances. They reportedly only acknowledged their In-Season Tournament title in the rafters of their arena when the league pressured them to do so. Their general manager, Rob Pelinka, was Bryant’s best friend and former agent, and has repeatedly stated that he has the same standard: That any move that does not get the Lakers closer to a title is not worth making.

So if a championship is the only thing that matters, the Lakers’ decision entering their Tuesday NBA Play-In matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans is simple: They should throw the game.

Yes, really.

Rest their stars, make up (or rest some real) injuries, or even channel their inner Cavaliers and play a four-big tanking lineup. It doesn’t matter how they do it, they just need to in order to avoid the Denver Nuggets.

Does that seem antithetical to competition? Maybe. But if one is taking the idea that every year without a title is a waste to its logical conclusion, the Lakers should do everything possible to maximize their odds at winning one.

You know what doesn’t do that? Winning a play-in postseason berth that would let them claim the seven seed… and a first-round matchup with the Nuggets, who swept them in the Western Conference Finals last season and have won eight games in a row against Los Angeles, who appear to have zero answers for likely three-time MVP Nikola Jokic.

Would it be risky for the Lakers to essentially forfeit a chance at the playoffs and go to a one-game, winner-take-all scenario against the Golden State Warriors or Sacramento Kings? Of course. Would it be humiliating if they did it… and then lost the next play-in game, and cost the Buss family some sweet, sweet playoff revenue gate receipts in the process? Obviously.

But if the team truly only judges itself on whether it wins a championship or not, let’s channel our inner Paul Atreides, drink some distilled worm vomit, and pragmatically lay out the future paths.

Behind Door No. 1 is a win against the New Orleans Pelicans and a first-round matchup with a team that has beaten them eight times in a row with a possibly gimpy Anthony Davis, who was injured in the team’s regular-season finale. Does anyone really think this Lakers team is taking that Denver matchup more than five games given how thoroughly Jokic has dominated that matchup inside as Jamal Murray takes turns roasting their tiny guards on the perimeter? I certainly don’t, and haven’t seen any evidence this season to suggest they could.

Behind Door No. 2, however? How about an extra two days of rest for Davis and LeBron James before a matchup with either the wheezing remains of the Sacramento Kings or the Golden State Warriors; all for a chance to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the one-eight matchup?

The Thunder certainly deserve respect, but they’re also a young team the Lakers have looked dominant against for three wins in a row this season and seem to have distinct matchup advantages against at the rim. Win that series, and you either face a Mavericks team also looks like a better matchup for L.A. than Denver, or a final date with the LA Clippers as co-tenants of Arena, with the opportunity to give them one final LeViction notice. Then you’re in the Conference Finals, where theoretically you could get some positive injury luck or pray that the Wolves or Suns took out Denver, and you at least have a chance against them.

There is no honor in getting punted out of the postseason by the Nuggets one more time. The same people who would roast or criticize the Lakers for ducking Denver would do the same for another lopsided series loss. If a title is truly all that matters, who cares? All the Lakers can do is try to maximize their chances at it.

Now, it’s worth noting that this is all a hypothetical. The Lakers, as (or more) risk-averse to embarrassment as any NBA team, are unlikely to spit in the face of tradition to tuck tail vs. a Pelicans team they seem to own, and hope for the best on the other side of the bracket (or take a chance at the mockery that would come with doing so, and then losing to the Kings or Warriors). It’s doubtful LeBron would stand by and let them (voluntarily) duck that smoke, and the Lakers, as professional athletes, probably have enough pride to believe they have a shot vs. the Nuggets.

But I don’t. At least not the fully healthy version. So if we’re being pragmatic here, the decision for them is clear if this season is truly title-or-bust: Rest the starters vs. New Orleans, take their chances in the second play-in game, fire up their best shot at upsetting a Thunder team they have matchup advantages against, and try to go as far as they can before facing a team they have little hope of beating in a series.

So call it ducking. Call it cowardly. I’ll just call it strategic. And if expanding their odds at a title is truly all that matters to them, the Lakers should too.

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